TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris went into Sunday's matchup against New Orleans knowing it would be difficult to slow down the Saints' red-hot offense.
So the Bucs relied on Plan B: Keep the New Orleans offense off the field as much as possible and hope for a few mistakes.
They accomplished both in a 26-20 win over the Saints that put them back in the chase for the NFC South title.
Josh Freeman threw for 303 yards and two touchdowns, Earnest Graham ran for 109 yards in place of injured starter LeGarrette Blount and the defense held its own against Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
The win pulled the Bucs (4-2) into a first-place tie with the Saints in the NFC South and snapped New Orleans' four-game winning streak.
It also gave Tampa Bay some momentum heading into one of its toughest stretches of the season.
``For us, it was our mindset right away,' Morris said. ``We knew we were 3-2 and we knew what they were, and we knew we had the ability to take over the lead being 2-0 in the division.'
Brees did become the first passer with four consecutive 350-yard games, but had three interceptions. The Saints also had a fumble and were held to only 70 yards rushing.
Even without defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the Bucs' defense was able to keep constant pressure on Brees. An offense that came in having outscored Tampa Bay 69-13 in its past two visits to Raymond James Stadium appeared out of sync and rushed.
``I thought they played great today,' Brees said. ``They took the ball away four times, which if you do that you're going to win a lot of games. We gave it away four times. The fact of the matter is that will get you beat.'
The Saints (4-2) came in relatively healthy, but lost their coach and offensive architect in the opening minutes of the game when Sean Payton got tangled up in a collision with New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham. Payton got his left leg caught under Graham as he was tackled on the sideline, suffering a torn ligament and a broken bone in the process.
He spent the second half in the training room watching the game via television and gave the play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael. Payton will have surgery on the knee Monday and will begin rehabilitation immediately afterward.
He was not available for comment afterward, but Graham said he was in good spirits.
``I talked to him and said 'My bad.' He said 'No, it's not your fault. You're the one fighting for the first down.'' Graham said. ``I had a couple of guys on me ... Next thing I know I'm rolling under Sean and he's on the ground.'
Despite all their miscues and misfortune, the Saints had a chance to take the lead late, but Brees was intercepted in the end zone on fourth down.
The Bucs led 23-13 heading into the fourth quarter until Mark Ingram's 12-yard run capped a seven-play, 82-yard drive and pulled the Saints within a field goal.
Tampa Bay pushed it back to 26-20 on Connor Barth's 38-yard field goal with 7:54 left, opening the door for the Saints. But with a fourth-and-2 on the 4, Brees' pass was intercepted by safety Quincy Black. The Bucs then put the ball in Graham's hands and were able to run out the clock.
The Saints' first drive of the game ended when Ingram's fumble was scooped up by Da'Quan Bowers and Barth kicked a 48-yard field goal three plays later.
Brees' touchdown pass to Marques Colston on their next possession put the Saints up 7-3 before the Bucs reeled off 17 unanswered points.
As great as Sunday's win felt, Freeman said they realize there is still a lot of tweaking to do going forward.
``Today, we didn't play close to our potential,' he said. ``To get this win is just one step forward in the direction (and) the goal that we're headed to.'
Much like the Bucs were able to turn the page quickly, so too must the Saints. And in safety Malcolm Jenkins' mind, it begins with eliminating the most pronounced deficiency they had Sunday - turnovers.
``We can't expect to win like that,' Jenkins said. ``We have to correct that. Defensively, we take this hard on our back because if we force maybe one or two, this whole game is different.'
Notes: Graham had his best rushing game since Sept. 28, 2008, when he had 111 yards against Green Bay...The Bucs have a 24-4 record since 2002 when they don't commit a turnover...Brees has completed at least 20 passes in an NFL-record 26 consecutive games.
The Associated Press News Service
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